Regenerative Living Defined: Thinking Beyond Sustainability

Sustainability is a big buzz word these days. You see it all over the place, from news articles about the environment to marketing promotions selling eco-friendly products. There’s even full college majors dedicated to studying it.

But can humans really just sustain everything we’re doing now? We depend on a finite supply of fossil fuels. We rely on an agricultural system that requires massive amounts of chemical and energy input to feed us. We spend more money on drugs and healthcare than we do on nutrient-rich foods that keep us healthy in the first place.

Globe with recycling symbol

Now, I’m based in the United States, so these things may not be true where you live. And yes, I’m generalizing. But if you’re from a first world country, I’m betting that similar things are happening around you, if not to you.

We need to change, not sustain, our behavior. Our ethics. Our present.

Regenerative living aims to make conscious choices to help fix the problems humans have caused. To focus on restoration instead of degradation. To think “what can I do help?” instead of “this isn’t my fault.” It’s all about action, not just talk.

Permaculture as a model for change

Permaculture is a concept coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s. It’s a hard concept to define in a sentence, but I’ll give it a shot. Permaculture is a design methodology grounded by ethics that uses systems thinking and design principles to create landscapes that provide food, fiber, and energy for human use. That’s a mouthful!

Initially, permaculture focused mainly on creating landscapes that provide human’s needs by using nature as a model to create “permanent agriculture” (shortened to perma-culture). In this case, the word permanent is synonymous to sustainable.

Over time and with the development of the permaculture vision, it became apparent that humans are central to the permaculture vision. Thus, the amalgam “permaculture” shifted from “permanent agriculture” to “permanent culture.” That small change made a big difference in the potential for permaculture to help create a model for regenerative living.

Permaculture garden with flowers and cabbage
A permaculture garden in bloom

You might be thinking, “wait wait wait…You just said permanent was synonymous to sustainable. Aren’t you arguing against the term sustainable?”

Good point, reader! Let me clarify. The permaculture vision is synonymous to a sustainable culture. If we ever get to the point where everyone has adopted the ethics and principles that permaculture teaches, we will be at a point where we are actually living sustainably.

Until then, we need to focus on rebuilding and reorganizing our systems to fix the problems we have created. For now, we need to live a regenerative life so that future generations can live a sustainable one. And I argue that using permaculture as a model is the best way to do this.

Why? Because similar to traditional (and sustainable) societies, permaculture is grounded by three ethics: Earth Care, People Care, and Future Care.

The Permaculture Ethics

Earth Care

The first permaculture ethic is Earth Care. This ethic has to do with all parts of the planet that are not human: soil, plants, animals, etc. It encourages us to be stewards of the land and the animals that inhabit it.

A hand holding the Earth to symbolize the permaculture principle of Earth Care
Earth Care

Humans have mostly become disconnected from the natural world. This is understandable, considering we have developed technology and created systems that remove us from the day-to-day survival of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. That’s not to say that technology is evil! Quite the opposite: modern society has created some of the most amazing innovations that help not just humans, but the Earth as well.

But as technology has advanced leaps and bounds, humans have been able to remove themselves from the natural cycles. We have been able to inhabit any ecosystem, even the most desolate, and survive. But the mindset of “above nature” serves no one. We need to recognize that we are a part of Earth’s finite world and start caring for it again.

Natural systems on Earth need no external inputs to survive. In fact, healthy forest and grassland ecosystems actually build soil on an annual basis- with no help from humans. All while supporting a diverse ecosystem made up of countless species interacting to the benefit of the entire system.

We need use the natural systems on Earth as a model for how to begin living in a way that regenerates our local ecosystems. We need to reconnect to nature and become stewards of our local landscapes. And more than anything else, we need to make sure that the Earth stays healthy- it’s our home after all.

People Care

The second ethic, People Care, focuses on our human relationships. And not just our relationships with others!

Self care is likely the most important part of regenerative living. Personal well-being needs to be priority one in every person’s life. We need to reconnect to ourselves and take responsibility for our own mental and physical wellness. Everyone has a different way of doing this. Some examples include yoga, meditation, making gifts for others, cooking a delicious & nutritious meal, spending time in the garden, reading a book in the bath with a glass of wine. Whatever it is for you, make sure you do it!

Regenerative Living starts with Self Care. A person meditating overlooking a sunset
Self Care is the most important

After self, you can start focusing on your immediate family and friends, and expand outwards to your neighbors, town, county, etc. Spend your time with others consciously. Don’t pull out your phone and take pictures of the sunset- just hold your partner’s hand and talk about it’s beauty.

Living in community is a part of the human experience. As hunter gatherers, we depended on our community for sustenance and safety. In modern society, we instead depend on technology, corporations, and government. We’ve become too far removed from what really matters, and our overall health and wellness is suffering because of it.

We can change by accepting our individual roles in where we are, and then taking whatever action we can to start making it better. That might mean helping someone with bus fare, or introducing yourself to the neighbor you’ve waved at but never spoken to. Focus on the positives and the opportunities around you rather than the negatives that everybody loves to talk about. Be the change!

Future Care

The final ethic can be summed up as “Future Care.” It’s also known as “fair share,” or “Set limits to consumption & reproduction, and redistribute surplus.” To put it simply, this ethic has to do with planning for many generations of future humans.

We need to follow the wisdom of traditional societies when it comes to planning our future. The Iroquois have a philosophy called the seventh generation principle that says that decisions made today should take into account the outcomes seven generations into the future, or about 140 years. Funny enough, that’s about the length of time it takes a new forest to begin reaching it’s prime.

Future care is really about making conscious choices about our actions in the present to preserve the Earth for future generations. The key is, this has to start with the individual. There’s no sense in putting the blame on big corporations because they are simply responding to market demand to increase their profit margins. We choose our lifestyle, what we buy, and which businesses we support.

Businessman holding a tree seedling
Choose businesses committed to giving back to the Earth

So instead of thinking “there’s nothing I can do to stop big businesses from polluting and exploiting resources,” start finding ways to change your lifestyle to support companies with the same ethics that you have. Just like people care, you need to start with yourself, and then move outwards to influence change.

A great tool to help understand your individual impact is called the ecological footprint. There are many quick online quizzes that can give a very general overview of your impact. I’ve linked one here.

We need to start taking action to preserve our future on the planet. I’m not suggesting that we abolish fossil fuel use or go back to an age without electricity. Rather, we should use the limited amount of fossil fuel that we have left to create systems that will restore the earth. We should support the development of renewable energy technology. And most of all, we should be conscious consumers that support businesses that are taking action to reduce or eliminate their negative impact on our planet.

Regenerative Living: Our Path Forward

It’s time to take action. For us, for the earth, and for future generations.

Here’s the catch- we need to change slowly and deliberately, not in a rush. Why? Because we must use nature as a model for our actions.

Small, slow solutions are the ones that cause the greatest outcome, like the giant redwoods that take hundreds of years to reach their prime. Fast, rushed actions cause problems, like floods after an big rain event on bare, disturbed soils. Both of these examples are natural occurrences, but one builds soil while the other washes it away.

You don’t need to change your entire lifestyle in a day. It will probably take YEARS! The important part is taking action at your own pace in a way that works for you.

A great way to start down this journey is through food.

Regenerative Living: Supporting local food. A farmers market.
Farmers Markets are great resources for food and community

Try growing your own food in some containers or in your backyard.  If that’s too scary, buy produce locally and in season. If you eat meat, support farmers that raise animals on pasture or in the animal’s natural environment. Properly managed pastured meat operations can actually build soil faster than forests!

Need more reasons to start with food? I’ve got you covered.

Eating high quality, nutrient-rich local food is great for your health: Self Care. Eating locally supports the farmers who produce it: People Care. Good farmers build soil and take care of their land: Earth Care. Choosing local food reduces how far your food needs to travel, thereby reducing carbon emissions: Future Care.

It’s all interconnected, just like natural ecosystems. That’s because we are part of the ecosystem surrounding us. We affect change everywhere we go. Let’s make that change be positive, regenerative.


Thanks for reading! If you have questions or something to say, feel free to leave a comment or head on over to the contact page to send me a message. And remember: focus on the positives and the opportunities, not the negatives and the excuses.